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photos by Lara Shipley

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

June 22nd, 2005 · No Comments

Kriston Capps replies to my smoking ban column from last week with his own taxonomy of smoking ban proponents. I posted in the comments there, but figure it’s worth reiterating one point here. I wrote:

It’s not obvious why choosing to accept whatever risk is entailed in being around second-hand smoke is inherently different from accepting any other unattractive feature of a job–late hours, frequent travel, the physical risks of working in jobs like construction, emotional and mental stress, or even simple tedium.

To which Kriston reponds:

Sanchez takes up the task of hunting out the canards among the smoking ban supporters’ argument but can’t resist employing one himself. Sure, if the drycleaning bills are the worst inconvenience to a job that exposes you to a lot of secondhand smoke, the Friends of the Worker come off looking very stupid indeed. Stink is a reasonably sufferable occupational hazard, especially when offset by the perks of entertainment employment. But we know better: worse than leaving work in smelly clothes is the full shift spent working in the presence of a carcinogenic environmental constant.

But my point wasn’t that secondhand smoke isn’t a carcinogen. My point was that there’s no principled difference between deciding to risk exposure to an environmental carcinogen and deciding to bear any number of other burdens. As I wrote in the comments there:

I should clarify what I meant by that argument. I’m not denying that ETS increases one’s risk of illness–though I don’t think it’s irrelevant that this is a function of the time of exposure, such that someone who does a stint of a year or two tending bar might not have much increased risk. What I meant was that even when a harm is objective, one’s assessment of what it means is irreducibly subjective. One job may involve being arount ETS, which we’ll stipulate has some very precisely specifiable added risk of disease associated with it. Another may very stressful, or have hours or travel requirements that leave me with less time for my friends and loved ones than I’d like. There’s some sense in which the first harm is more “objective”; there is no sense in which it is somehow more real, or in which I’m irrational if I decide that I prefer the health risk to the other (social or psychological) burdens of the alternative job. How much risk is associated with how much exposure to how much ETS? Science can answer that. (And, as a side note, one doesn’t JUST choose between smoking and non smoking bars; someone might decide they don’t want to work in a *very* smoky bar, but a big place in which, in practice, only a few customers at a time smoke is fine.) How *bad* is that risk, relative to other benefits of that job, or other downsides of alternative jobs? You have to ask the individual worker. If we’re not seduced by the patina of science into thinking that some tradeoffs are more objective or rational than others, it makes less sense to say that nobody may take a job with *this* unattractive (to some) feature, but others unattractive features are for the worker to weigh.

Let me also add that we should keep in mind when looking at some of the risk estimates for secondhand smoke that the relative increase in risk (a 20 percent greater chance of heart disease, say) from exposure to secondhand smoke may sound pretty bad, but it’s important to bear in mind that these are increases in a relatively small baseline risk. That is to say, if the risk of ailment X is pretty low to begin with, a large-sounding relative increase in that risk may still leave your absolute probability of becoming ill pretty low. I don’t know how you decide how much risk is too much other than by letting each worker decide—and maybe ensuring that there are more non-smoking options for those who don’t want the risk by supporting somethign like Carol Schwartz’s compromise bill.

Tags: Nannyism